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Yutopian: The Formative Archaeology of Northwest Argentina

Joan Gero, American University, Visiting Scholar 2006–2007

My project as a summer Visiting Scholar concentrated on the book-length manuscript I am preparing, tentatively called Yutopian: An Account of Agency and Ambiguity in the Archaeology of Northwest Argentina. The site of Yutopian was first occupied toward the end of the Argentinean Early Formative period, 600 BCE–600 AD, when intensive agriculture and sedentary village life were first practiced. Settlements are generally idealized as replicative, dispersed individual or clustered domestic structures, freestanding or interspersed among walled agricultural fields and animal corrals, although few examples have been excavated. In the nearby Tafí Valley, domestic sites sometimes include single standing worked stones (termed menhires) although these are absent at other Early Formative sites. The Early Formative is also characterized by the circulation of exotic goods, including complex ceramics such as Condorhuasi polychrome and Candelaria modelled and incised wares, copper and gold masks and ornaments, and bronze bracelets and bells, although these elaborated goods mostly lack excavated provenience.

The difficulty in reconciling the dispersed low-density and purportedly egalitarian settlements with the energy-intensive and highly crafted manufactured goods became the focus of our project, attempting to relate sites where these goods may have been produced to sites of consumption. Yutopian proved to be unusually well suited for this research: the intact living floors of its nine nucleated patio groups revealed spatial relations among household materials, and it yielded rich new data in many areas of Formative life, including craft production. My monograph will review the Formative period in northwest Argentina and the particular site of Yutopian within it, but will also describe our experiences undertaking this archaeological work. I am particularly eager to provide an epistemological account of how we came to learn what we did about Yutopian, how our knowledge depended on the acceptance of local interpretive conventions, and where we are forced to accept ambiguous results.

Dumbarton Oaks provided a superb environment for on-going work on the manuscript. I was able to reframe the piece with a new introduction, and extend and revise the first 200 pages of the manuscript. Access to the incomparable library collections made the work both efficient and enormously satisfying, if occasionally also distracting.